Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 26 Summary

Diversity in the East

“… But now, at last, the sacred influence
Of light appears, and from the walls of heaven
Shoots far into the bosom of dim Night
A glimmering dawn …”

On paper, India is a constitutional oligarchy, the parliamentary version. One could argue, however, that it is the most democratic society in the world.

To understand anything about India, one must begin by trying to understand Hinduism. In its broadest sense, Hinduism says all humans, animals, plants are part of the same universal spirit. To harm any part of the whole, even the smallest part, is to harm the whole. Hindus revere nature in all of its manifestations. It is a non-individualistic, non-controlling way of looking at life. As such, it is an ideal soil for promoting the growth of a spirit of democracy.

A Hindu will create a modest family shrine, in his own home. He will meditate and chant, worshiping and honoring those beliefs, icons, symbols and traditions that have personal meaning to him. In this broad sense there are as many versions of Hinduism as there are people who practice it.

India’s religious diversity is matched by its social and political diversity. Over the course of thousands of years, there were multiple invasions, bringing various new tribes and peoples to share a common space. In the West, under similar circumstances, the different peoples merged into one. In India, they ended up living side by side, maintaining their native culture, language and forms of worship. This unusual phenomenon helps explain a lot about Indian culture and religion and its penchant for democracy.

Today, India is a country of seventeen languages and 22,000 dialects. For centuries it was a collection of hundreds of separate principalities, kingdoms, and states. When the British left India in 1947, they had to cajole, bribe, threaten over five hundred rulers into relinquishing their power in favor of a unified India. Thus, it is not surprising to learn that India has had a difficult time setting up a strong center. There is a constant tug from various well-organized and vocal local governments with party lines of their own.

Democracy is an expression of unity in diversity. It is a steady state of tension between centrifugal forces, drawing towards the centre, and centripetal forces, drawing away from the center towards the local. When democracy is working, the center will be weak. The local elements will be strong and diverse, as they are in India.